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fish metaphors by Alan Z. '23

on queerness

“Why did you come back?”
“Well, I’m—I’m a queer Asian…person, so…”
“You felt seen.”

Imagine a fish out of water.

When I was growing up, I was always the odd one out. Growing up in South Dakota, I was usually the only Asian student in the classroom, and that was just one in a broad set of characteristics that set me aside from the other students. I was awkward, always too busy reading to pay attention to others, and, being a year younger than everyone else, consistently shorter than other people in my class. In other words, I was a perfectly pitiable caricature of a nerd.

I spent a good amount of time feeling sorry for myself in middle school. By high school, I had grown used to being treated differently, and I no longer hated it as much, because, to be frank—

Imagine a big fish in a small pond.

I had developed a successful coping mechanism. I would simply be better than the people around me, and it would prove to them that I was worth something. If it wasn’t enough for them, at least I could say to myself, internally: “they just don’t like you because you’re different.”

The truth is that, for the most part, this strategy worked. I was reasonably good at everything I did, and great at a few particular ones, at least within my state. I could play in the all-state orchestra,01 To be extremely clear, '28th best high school violinist in South Dakota' is not a high honor, but it is one which I received. qualify for National Science Bowl for four consecutive years, compete well in three different forms of debate, and go to Worlds with the robotics team. This made it much harder to disguise criticism of my identity as criticism of my merits, and I ended making a lot of friends through extracurriculars as well.

All that said, I knew that I was a big fish in a small pond. I’d been to national-level events; I knew that there were people miles and miles ahead of me. This didn’t faze me. The point was specifically to out-compete the people near me, so that they would have to accept me.

It wasn’t easy, but I did it.

Something smells fishy.

I never harbored any suspicions that I might not be straight until the summer after my sophomore year of high school. Of course, looking back on it, there were signs: I still remember feeling an absurd amount of joy and relief after the Obergefell decision in 2015. At the time I felt the joy came from the righting of social wrongs, not any effect the decision might have on my personal life. By the summer of 2017, however, the situation was obvious.

I was bi, or, at the very least, out of the three options in my mental framework at the time—gay, straight, and bi—I was closest to the last option.

This realization was kind of sudden, and to be honest, I don’t really remember what caused it. I only remember that before the summer of 2017, I identified as straight, and afterwards, I identified as bi, and nothing specific had driven this shift in identification.

To be honest, I felt kind of fucked. Here it was, another unusual attribute to hide or compensate for. I was lucky enough to know a few openly gay people at my high school, so I knew that it was possible to live with it. On the other hand, this was a place where “queer” was a word which could cut you like a knife.

In spite of this—and partially because I was so tired of hiding all the interesting things about me—over the last two years of high school, I ended up coming out to a lot of my friends, one friend at a time, each one a calculated risk. Funnily enough, a lot of my friends also came out to me. By the time I graduated high school, about half of my friend group was out as queer. That was neat, at least. It would have been nice to have known earlier, but that was the environment we lived in.

We moved on with our lives.

There are many fish in the sea.

I arrived at MIT freshman fall and finally got to go through my baby gay phase. I dyed the front part of my hair, got myself some bi pride buttons, and broke the November Rule with a guy.02 obligatory comment: do not break the November Rule. it only ends badly for you, and all the upperclassmen will just say 'we told you so.' It was a rocky time of my life—as perhaps, all freshman falls are—but I got to be myself, and that was an experience I relished.

Of course, I didn’t feel entirely safe yet. After spending seventeen years growing up in a kind of fear you didn’t even notice, it’s hard to let things go. I still knew that queerness invited violence, and even holding hands or leaning on each other in public felt dangerous. I very vividly remember holding hands with my boyfriend, sitting on a bench in the elevator lobby in Lobby 7 on a Friday evening, seeing one of the graduate students in my lab exit the elevator, and feeling the adrenaline kick through my veins. What would he think? Will he say anything to me the next time I see him?

Coming into MIT, I had been told over and over: “you will need to find something to define yourself other than your intelligence.” This was a worry, but it was also a relief. I was tired of being unique, of being the one Asian person in the room, of being the one queer person in the room. Being surrounded by other queer Asian MIT students made me seem utterly unremarkable, and that was delicious. It was refreshing to just be normal.

On the other hand—

Does a fish know it’s in water?

I also remember going to a Rainbow Lounge event during my freshman year, and feeling utterly disconnected from all the people there. I mean, how do you even start a conversation? “Hi, I’m Alan, and I’m attracted to people of all genders, and that’s the reason I’m talking to you today!” It just didn’t seem right. I mean, many of us had shared experiences growing up, but at MIT? Queerness was no longer a defining characteristic of our lives, and that was liberating, but it meant that I felt no strong sense of connection to the other people in the room.

In David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water,” he begins with a little anecdote.

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

Being at the Rainbow Lounge event felt like I was going to an event “in the water,” as if I had not been in the water the whole time. It would be like collecting a group of people who were all 5′ 11″ to have a focus group about their particular height, or collecting a large set of people named Josh to fight for the right to the name. Perhaps an interesting thought experiment, but not particularly valuable in practice.03 I say this with deep apologies to the Josh fight.

Because of this sense of that queerness was no longer defining on campus, I found myself deeply frustrated when people described dorms like EC and Random as “queer spaces,” because I had happily found my community in Next House, and I was queer. MIT was queer enough. Just because a community isn’t loudly queer, doesn’t mean it isn’t queer. Although part of me did yearn for a little more “showy” queerness in Next, with pride flags and hair dye and whatnot, I knew I felt perfectly safe in Next, and I felt very sad about potential Nexties being pushed away from Next simply because these other dorms were “more queer.”

Every time I saw a prefrosh ask about queer dorms on campus, either online or during CPW, I wanted to say: “You’ll be okay. You’ll be okay wherever you chose to live.”

Imagine a school of clownfish.

A few weeks ago, on a random day during senior week, Shuli and I wandered down to Quincy Market, a tourist attraction with notoriously high prices, for the sake of celebrating the end of the school year. As we walked around, we noticed a surprisingly high number of people with pride flags. We discussed what the source of this “unresolved gay situation” might be while we ate lunch, until we finally decided to ask someone about it:

“We’ve noticed a lot of pride flags around, is there some kind of event or something?”
“Yeah, it’s Pride.”

It turned out Boston Youth Pride was happening just a few blocks down, and we went and wandered into a festival of queer joy. It was a nice reminder that queer people exist and are happy outside the MIT bubble, too. Over the past three years, I’ve learned a lot about queerness from the people around me. I’ve learned what it means to be pan, or ace, or aro, and I’ve met lots of trans and non-binary people—identities which weren’t as present where I was growing up. As I’ve learned more, I’ve continually evaluated my own identity, and I’ve always been worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep that identity alive in the “real world.” Wandering into Pride gave me hope, if just for a second, that it would be.

When I eventually returned home, I found myself reconsidering my thoughts on queerness at MIT. If I felt so much joy in seeing these folks celebrate queerness, wouldn’t being more openly and loudly queer bring joy to other people as well?

Try fishing for answers.

I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no “right way” to resolve this cognitive dissonance. Pride flags and hair dye can be discussion starters, and being openly and loudly queer can help show others that they, too, are free to be themselves around you and around others. Fighting for the right to be yourself can help show others coming after you that there is hope. The “showy” queerness can be important to building a community that is truly welcoming.

The truth is, however, that being an example sucks sometimes. Having conversations where you are explaining your identity can be exhausting. The whole point of coming out is to try and be the person you truly are, and sometimes that person just isn’t loud or open, or “showy.” Each person and each community must strike their own balance. The question for me then becomes, “have I struck the right balance for myself?” To be honest, I’m still not sure.

This year, a group of Nexties started a new Next House student group called Next Queer. One of their initiatives was to buy pride flags for anybody in the house who wanted them. One of the options for delivery was to have them taped up outside your door, once they arrived. I got a rainbow flag, a bi flag, and a non-binary flag.

pride flags outside a door

I let the flags hang outside my door for the rest of the semester.

Just keep swimming.

This summer, I’ve been trying to be a little more spontaneous—to say “yes” to more random social events and conversations, and to be more willing to stumble around the city without a planned itinerary; to engage more in the process of discovery. Because of this, I ended up at a musical twice in one week, and, on my second viewing, I happened to spot a person who’d been there the previous time as well:

“Why did you come back?”
“Well, I’m—I’m a queer Asian…person, so…”
“You felt seen.”

Just a few months ago, I would never have said that in public to someone I was just meeting. I would have used the word “guy” instead of “person” and winced internally. This summer, when I introduced myself to my intern cohort, I got to say, for the first time:

“Hi! I’m Alan. I use they/them pronouns.”

Why is this important? Why say all this?

In a pre-show discussion at a different musical,04 post about all these musicals coming at a later date the panelists talked about what it takes to support queer youth, some from their positions as social workers, and others from their positions as volunteers and community members. Much of the discussion focused on the challenges queer youth face, ranging from anti-LGBTQ+ laws being passed in statehouses across the nation to the individual difficulties many queer youth have with their families. To be honest, the conversation was depressingly familiar, both from personal experience and from the experiences of some of my friends.

As the panel wrapped up, the moderator asked the question, “what gives you hope?”

One by one, each of them gave the same answer: the bravery of queer youth to simply be their authentic selves in a world that chooses to resist them.

So, here we are. Being brave. It has taken so much time and so many conversations with so many people to get me here, but I am here now, and that is enough.

Happy Pride.

  1. To be extremely clear, '28th best high school violinist in South Dakota' is not a high honor, but it is one which I received. back to text
  2. obligatory comment: do not break the November Rule. it only ends badly for you, and all the upperclassmen will just say 'we told you so. back to text
  3. I say this with deep apologies to the Josh fight. back to text
  4. post about all these musicals coming at a later date back to text